There was an interesting story in the New Yorker (Person of Interest, the TV show that predicted Edward Snowden) that got me watching a show I had initially dismissed (I think because it was marketed as a J.J. Abrams show). It’s got the guy who played Ben in Lost — who’s an excellent actor, even if I’d like to do terrible things to the creators of Lost with a fork.
The basic premise of Person of Interest is that in the wake of “9/11”, the US security apparatus started doing exactly what anyone with a clue knew they were doing and Snowden later revealed they were in fact doing and that a billionaire hacker genius (Ben… er Finch) wrote software to analyze all the data and spit out “persons of interest” — i.e. people planning future terror plots. The wrinkle is that the software initially couldn’t differentiate between people plotting terror attacks and those plotting ordinary violent crimes, so the hacker figured out how to divide its hits into “relevant” (to national security) and “not relevant” (i.e. ordinary criminals). For some reason the non-relevant hits are always in New York, but I digress. The billionaire feels guilty about all the non-relevant people who keep dying, and tries to save them (with the help of an improbably effective ex-CIA agent).
I mention all this by way of diversion. The show is exceptionally well-made, cleverly understated, and intelligent. So it’s with considerable annoyance that — watching through season 1 on iTunes — I stumbled into the worst recurring TV show plot ever. OK, there are probably worse recurring TV show plots, but this one is egregious and not worthy of an intelligent TV show such as Person of Interest. The summary goes like this (not a spoiler — this plot cannot be spoiled):
- People are getting killed mysteriously.
- A drug company is involved.
- And it turns out they’re suppressing information that lots of people died horribly during the clinical trial of a drug they’re just about to release.
I think I’ve seen this plot in pretty much every episodic cop show on television, and a bunch of lawyer and doctor shows too. My memory is hazy, but I’m pretty sure it’s occurred in The Good Wife, Law and Order (and perhaps Criminal Intent as well), Bones, etc. Shows that are generally intelligently written, well-acted, and strongly plotted. (OK, Bones has kind of jumped the shark.)
Yes, drug companies do evil things. Yes, they’re motivated by profit. But the way to make a buttload of money as a drug company is not — repeat not — to produce a drug that kills people, cover up the deaths, and then release the drug.
Now, if the bad guy were a stock market speculator who wanted to make sure a particular drug got released because he/she had some kind of weird futures contract, or was shorting a rival pharmaceutical company, or something like that — OK, that’s kind of barely plausible. But to knowingly release a drug that will get your company sued to oblivion is simply stupid.
Now there are cases of drug companies covering up deaths caused by their drugs. A recent example which got a lot of coverage is the story of acetaminophen overdoses caused by (a) the drug being lethal at doses as low as double the maximum recommended daily dose, (b) confusion caused by infant tylenol being twice as concentrated as children’s tylenol, and (c) the presence of tylenol in many, many “cocktail” drugs that are frequently taken together. An older example I recall is a drug used to help smokers quit that was associated with a notable, but statistically insignificant, number of sudden deaths. There was also some controversy over Prozac being prescribed for kids and possibly leading to suicide. And of course there’s Vioxx. But these are all drugs that were already on the market, and the cover-ups and maneuverings were over marketing issues (can we call our drug “the safest”? or will the government put our drug on a list of drugs covered by public insurance?). This is about protecting markets and avoiding lawsuits.
Here’s an evil thing Big Pharma actually does (and the only TV show I know of that nailed this was House M.D.):
- Create a drug that’s just like a drug you already sell which is going out of patent (but “with a vitamin E molecule tacked on the side” to paraphrase House from memory)
- Conduct many clinical trials of your new drug vs. the old drug and placebo
- Assuming the new drug is exactly as effective as the old drug and the trials are conducted by perfectly by disinterested parties, one in twenty will show the new drug is more effective than the old drug — publish only those results (journals have a strong bias against publishing studies with no statistically significant result, so it’s not like you even need to work hard to suppress the null findings)
- Market the hell out of the new drug (e.g. bribe doctors to prescribe or recommend it, scare patients into demanding it)
But that probably won’t create a grisly trail of corpses for your investigators to discover.